OTTAWA – Efforts by the government to sell Americans on the virtues of Canadian natural resources have failed to impress those south of the border, according to a new report, and have even left them puzzled over assertions that Canada is America’s best friend.
A government-commissioned Harris-Decima report on a recent advertising blitz by Natural Resources Canada found that focus groups in the U.S. capital were befuddled by the campaign’s tagline — “America’s best friend is America’s best energy solution.”
“Few would immediately assume this means Canada, despite certainly considering Canada to be a good friend,” says the $58,000, taxpayer-funded report, posted Wednesday on Library and Archives Canada.
“Some indicated that claiming you are one’s best friend comes across as something one does when one is about to ask for a huge favour.”
Others took issue with the word “solution” because it suggests “America had a problem that needed solving.” They recommended an edit of the tagline for the print ads, perhaps to read “Canada is America’s best energy partner.”
In a similar vein, “virtually all objected to the reference to Canada’s ban on dirty coal as it seemed to imply that Canada is doing more than the U.S.,” the report noted.
Natural Resources Canada budgeted $9 million in the current 2012-13 fiscal year for a series of ads, dubbed the Responsible Resource Development advertising campaign by the Harper government, that show a cross-section of resource industries in a job-friendly and environmentally sensitive light.
The Conservative government has spent years trying to convince Americans of the benefits of Canadian energy and Canada’s environmental record, particularly relating to Alberta’s oilsands and the Keystone XL pipeline. U.S. President Barack Obama is set to make a decision on the fate of the TransCanada project early next year.
But Americans in six focus groups in Washington, D.C., told Harris-Decima researchers that the ads, launched in February in the heat of the Keystone battle, could be “greatly improved” and lack a cohesive and direct message to the American public.
Harris-Decima interviewed people over three rounds last spring — members of the general public and so-called “opinion elites” who are political news aficionados — to gauge their opinions.
“The advertising as it stands faces some challenges in conveying a consistently heard and appreciated message and could be greatly improved with some specific adjustments to tone and content,” the report found.
Others felt the ads should be more direct about advocating in favour of Keystone XL.
“Based on their assumption that the ads related to a Canadian pipeline, opinion elites were fairly uniform in stating a preference for seeing mention of ‘pipeline’ in the copy and perhaps the imagery,” the report stated. “They indicated there was more credibility if the perceived message was less subtle.”
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver wasn’t immediately available to comment on the report.
Some of the American criticism of the ads focused on confusion about the campaign’s intended audience as well as its content and jargon. Those in one focus group complained about describing greenhouse gas emissions as GHGs, to name just one example.
Others wanted to know “how the U.S. will benefit from a Canadian pipeline, whether it be from increased oil imports from Canada or lower gas prices,” said the report.
Among other complaints from the focus groups: Americans prefer their country be referred to as the United States or the U.S., not America. And the phrase “America faces a choice” in some of the advertisements is “somewhat pushy.”
It wasn’t all negative. The focus groups also felt “Canada provides a sensible energy solution to the U.S. because of its reliability as a supplier and its efforts to ensure safe delivery.”
The report added: “It was fairly clear that Canada is held in fairly high regard, even if it is not often considered, and that an element of that high regard relates to Canada being a competent and trustworthy neighbour/partner — both in terms of industrial partnerships and acting responsibly.”
As well, the opinion elites “indicated that Canada is seen as being more environmentally responsible and having higher safety standards compared to other oil producing countries.”
In the summer of 2012, Natural Resources Canada hired Leger Marketing to fine-tune the government’s proposed advertising campaign. The project included a national telephone poll of 2,000 respondents and two separate rounds of focus groups.
But a similar study, this one conducted in Canada, showed the ad campaign failed to impress a dozen focus groups spread across six Canadian cities. The ads were criticized as being too focused on western Canada and of failing to provide factual information or deliver a coherent message.
Three new ad concepts were developed, with “significant modifications,” and a second round of focus-group testing proved more positive.